I must admit, I’m becoming a Sheba Chhachhi fangirl. Over the years, I’ve only seen bits and bobs of her work. I think the first time I really noticed Chhachhi was when I chanced upon “Ganga’s Daughters: Meeting with Women Ascetics 1992-2002” back in 2004 during a very random and short trip to Delhi. The show was was fascinating. I hadn’t heard of Chhachhi before and knew nothing about this project of hers but many of the photographs she had taken, documenting women ascetics, were tremendous. The world of the Hindu ascetic is very much the male bastion and has been so for centuries. This isn’t to say there haven’t been women who have added a little variety to the mix and in “Ganga’s Daughters”, Chhachhi presented the modern sorority. These women don’t fulfill the social roles expected of their gender — they have abandoned the hearth and home that the mother/wife/sister/daughter is supposed to care for — and yet, despite being transgressors, these ‘abnormal’ (i.e. not conforming to the norm) demand and command respect. Chhachhi’s photos showed a weird mix of distance and candour that really stayed with me.
I’d slotted Chhachhi in my head as a documentary photographer and an activist of sorts, which she has been in the past. Which is why when I saw “Winged Pilgrims” at Nature Morte a few years ago, you could have knocked me down with a feather. Nothing I’d seen in “Ganga’s Daughters” could have prepared me for the artistry of her works in “Winged Pilgrims”. “Ganga’s Daughters” had all the simplicity of documentary photography. The ideas in it were thought provoking but the medium and the way it was used was straightforward. “Winged Pilgrims”, on the other hand, seemed magical. It used technology, lightboxes, layered imagery, all sorts of artistic artifice to tell Chhachhi’s chosen story. Back then I wondered whether I’d been so impressed with “Winged Pilgrims” because it was nothing like “Ganga’s Daughters”. Some three years later, I have the answer: nope, Chhachhi’s work is pretty darn amazing. Even when you see it for the second time, as I did at Volte, where “Winged Pilgrims” is now known as “Luminarium: A Prelude”.
I do like the Volte title better, I must say.
Even if you’re not interested in the curious confluence of migration, mythology and modernity in these Chhachhi works, “Luminarium: A Prelude” is one of the most beautiful shows you’ll see. Just at the visual level, Chhachhi has crafted exquisite pieces that she describes as “electronic palimpsests”, which sounds complicated but really is the best phrase to describe her works. Essentially, each work is a composite of layered images. In some, a layer or two moves, scrolling slowly across like a magic lantern. Sounds primitive and looks simple but the effect is very sophisticated, as is the technology. Using lightboxes, screens and I don’t know what else, Chhachhi looks at the idea of migration through three things: the symbol of the bird, the robes of Buddhist pilgrims and toy televisions. Her sense of colour is superb and she is able to communicate so much just by the levels of saturation and contrast. Take the work that has black crows against a terribly red background (made up of a landscape taken from Mughal art). Just the colours make the work reek menace. Add to that the angularity of the wings, the sharp beaks… you can almost hear the raucous war cries from the murder of crows.
Enter the gallery and it’s gloomy but the works gleam, jewel-like, on the walls. The Buddhist robes (which, both here and in Nature Morte, made me think of geishas rather than pilgrims. Oops) stand in the gallery. They look ghostly because there’s no visible body even though the robes look filled. They seem to hover mid-air and the robes hold little screens with invisible hands. They’re an amazing and spooky installation. You can immediately sense they’re protective about what they hold. Once upon a time, Buddhist pilgrims carried sacred texts to different parts of Asia. Now Chhachhi’s disembodied pilgrims carry Plasma Action tv screens. You’ve seen them before. They’re tacky little toy screens that have an image scrolling across them. The ones I’ve seen most often have glowing fish blandly moving across the screens without a twitch of a fin. Chhachhi’s robes hold up screens that show images of scientists all suited and masked up to battle avian flu. There’s no mistaking the resemblance between the contamination suits and the robes. Of course while the robes were worn by people who tried to conserve stories that saw birds as wise and mystical creatures, the suits are worn by those who cull birds.
(I don’t know what the works are called, except for the installation with the robes, so I’ve just mentioned the bird that characterises the work for me instead.)
The birds are all over the wall pieces. There are peacocks, Garudas (in Hinduism, Vishnu’s rather frightening consort; now, the name of Indonesia’s national airline) and the Kaha bird, which is from a Tajik legend. In the story, a diseased Shah is told that the blood of the Kaha can cure him and so there is a failed attempt to hunt it. They fail and the magical bird is lost to mankind. In “Luminarium”/”Winged Pilgrims”, the bird isn’t lost but it mutates. From being a metaphor of the soul, it becomes an object of consumption and a cause of anxiety as this mutated symbol strikes fear into people. The mutation is the result of modern progress, beginning with steamboats and culminating in the festering trash of industries. Images of delicate beauty — taken from Chinese brush painting, Indian sculpture, Persian miniatures and other classical sources — are placed against a backdrop of modern decay, pollution and trash. The modern birds, unlike the gorgeous Kaha bird, are a scary cluster. There’s something tremendously eerie about the parrots, crows and hens, with their neon colouring. The flocks have all the grim determination and sameness of a marching platoon.
All the while that you walk around the show, a plaintive voice sings wordlessly. If the helpful lady at Volte is to be believed, the singer is Vidhi Rao. She composed this piece specifically for Chhachhi’s show. The music is quite fascinating because Rao lets you hear hints of very disparate musical traditions by changing the throw of her voice. I’m sure there are technicalities of the notes used and what not that I didn’t understand. All I know is, Rao’s voice sounds haunting. At moments, I felt like I was hearing hints of Chinese opera and at other times, there was the steadiness of the dhrupad singing style, the low hum of a chant… beautiful.
While I’m not one of those who is sold on the idea of modernity being the force of all evil (I am hugely grateful for modern plumbing, thank you very much; it’s the one reason that I don’t want to live in any other time period), I could spend hours watching Chhachhi’s version of a diatribe against the conventional notion of progress. What I love most about “Luminarium” is how beautiful it is. When you read Chhachhi’s accompanying text, it could be daunting (big words, spattered references to esoteric and erudite ideas) but much more important is the fact that her intimidatingly intelligent words don’t convey the delicacy of her art. There is a simple beauty to these works that makes them spellbinding and there are no polysyllables that can match that impact. If you’re in Mumbai, the show is on till August 1. Go see it.
I’m not certain that all the works are the same as “Winged Pilgrims”, because frankly, I don’t remember it in that much detail but I can say that most of the works from the older Delhi show have come to Mumbai. I do know that it was an absolute pleasure to see them again. “Luminarium” is supposed to marinate Mumbai audiences so that we’re prepared for a solo show of new works at Volte in 2012. Yay!